To call Israeli helmer Eytan Fox’s candy-colored, buoyantly upbeat musical a change of pace would be an understatement. Still, Fox’s 2011 drama “Yossi” already ranked as a celebration, albeit in minor key, as its sad-sack hero finally broke free from mournful isolation. Now, in “Cupcakes,” not one man but five women, led by a joyously uninhibited gay guy, jettison their paralyzing fears and, in the grand old MGM tradition, put on a show! (Or rather, sing songs on a global telecast.) Endearingly goofy with its “dare to be yourself” moral and ’70s-tinged aesthetic, this sweet confection could tempt gay and straight audiences alike.
In a nostalgic throwback to the bygone days of neighborliness and kitsch TV, six fellow tenants gather together to watch “Unisong,” a “Eurovision”-type international singing contest. Unimpressed by the generic Israeli entry but still in musical mode, they join in an impromptu number to cheer up their hostess, whose husband has just left her. A cell phone-shot video of their ditty is submitted on a lark and soon goes viral, and the six soon find themselves elected as the official Israeli representatives at the next “Unisong” contest, to the great consternation of almost everyone involved.
Played by well-known actors from diverse disciplines, this gaggle of neighbors are a motley bunch indeed, each with his or her own reason for not going public. Efrat (Efrat Dor), a lesbian alternative singer-guitarist whose artistic intransigence has kept her on the margins of the business, wants no part of this cornball venue. Middle-aged baker Anat (Anat Waxman), the abandoned wife, dreads looking ridiculous and “age-inappropriate.” Dana (Dana Ivgy), who works as assistant to a conservative female politico just to please her Orthodox dad, shudders at the notion of so frivolously exposing herself.
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Yael (Yael Bar-Zohar), an ex-beauty queen turned lawyer, fears losing respect as a professional woman. Pathologically shy blogger Keren (Keren Berger) hesitates to venture outside cyberspace. Only Ofer (Ofer Schecter), a teacher who delightedly performs for his kindergarteners in sequined drag, never hesitates, brushing off the paranoid imaginings of his tightly closeted lover (Alon Levi).
Finally, persuaded by friends, significant others, potential heartthrobs or inner revelations, each of the timid holdouts surrenders, as “Cupcakes” celebrates the heady liberation of coming out of societal closets with song, decor and romantic resolutions. Instead of subverting traditional movie-musical cliches, Fox and co-writer Eli Bijaoui gleefully revel in them: The scene in which showbiz professionals seek to polish a performer beyond recognition (Esther Blodgett, anyone?) gets a hilarious workout in an awful, overproduced song-and-dance number that destroys everything that made the neighbors’ song so charming. Eventually, of course, they remain true to their amiably kooky vision, Ofer looking particularly fetching in tuxedo top and tutu bottom. Fox lets the other “Unisong” acts proceed in more conventional, contemporary mode, though he films them with equal gusto.
With its bright pastels and chirpy campiness, “Cupcakes” seems closer to Pedro Almodovar’s kinky comedies than to Fox’s somber, war-torn “Yossi & Jagger” or the Israeli-Palestinian tensions that threatened to burst “The Bubble.” Momentarily abandoning the strain of imagining liberation within a realistically perceived Israel, Fox here settles for the ephemeral glow of an exuberant block party.